Stephen Burt in Boston Review - The New Thing
Robert Archambeau posted on Stephen Burt's essay in BR last week:
It took me a bit to get a copy, but now that I have, I find Stephen Burt’s essay, titled “The New Thing, or, The Object Lessons of Recent American Poetry,” tempting. (It's now been put up on the BR website: http://bostonreview.net/BR34.3/burt.php) The—to reduce the thing down very far indeed—idea that the impact of Wallace Stevens, which blossomed in the late 1980s and has continued to grow (we are often considered to be in the Age of Ashbery, but I see it more as the off-shoots from the presence of Stevens) is coming to share the stage with a new, second (after an influence on the late 1950s) impact of William Carlos Williams (as streamed through the Objectivists [yes!] and more recent poets like Rae Armantrout and C.D. Wright [double yes!]). How could one not be excited by such a prospect?
Poetic movements, in their viral way, evolve and shift and sway, of course, and they also overlap and go dormant and reappear.
Here’s Burt’s description of the first group in this essay, the post-Stevens (Burt doesn't mention Stevens, by the way. That's my, perhaps hyperbolic, addition.) group:
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For most of the past decade the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets' life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from Continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were (in M.H. Abrams' famous formulation) less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O'Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, ten years ago, called "elliptical," what other (sometimes hostile) observers called New Lyric, or "post-avant," or Third Way. Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine's Debt (1992), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1997-98); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience, whether or not they had something to say.
Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them.
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He goes on to say about them:
Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, "the skittery poem of our moment" may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoagland's nominee for its replacement—what he calls "narrative," especially the autobiographical sort—seems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?
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I think Burt’s right. The air has gotten pretty think in that elliptical room. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of that mode (How can it end before it even has a stable name? Alas!). There were important things found there. Some of the best poets of this tendency are going to continue to find worthy and excellent poems there. And Burt would agree with that, I’m certain. But, he’s also right in that tendencies tend to expand dramatically and then settle down to a much smaller group, to be replaced by a new expansion. So what is the next expansion? It’s a fun question.
The group he nominates (the WCW / Oppen / Armantrout / C.D. Wright strain) seems a viable candidate. Armantrout and C.D. Wright have both been gaining in stature over the past decade, so that now they’re at the point of gathering enough momentum so that we might be at the brink of a new expansionary period. I would welcome that.
He sees these poets as turning from the interiority of the (well, since this is Burt’s essay I’m talking about, I’ll go with his nomenclature) Elliptical Poets to a more world-oriented, thing-itself, vision. Likewise, by and large, the large, effusive tendencies of the Elliptical Poets, in the poets of the New Thing, get revised into a much more spare, attenuated line (picture the difference between the way a Jorie Graham poem and a Rae Armantrout poem sit on the page and in the world, and you get the idea).
And if this comes to pass, a few of the younger poets Burt names as exhibiting this tendency include Jon Woodward, Graham Foust, Heather Dubrow, Devin Johnston, Douglas Mao, Joseph Massey, Maureen McLane, Michael O'Brien , and Alissa Valles.
Here’s how he describes the mode:
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The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism-- fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams's "demand" (as one critic put it) "both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself." They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.
The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term "minimalism" comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.
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The essay is lengthy (close to 5,000 words), so I’ve skipped over a lot. It’s well worth it to go find a copy. If you’re patient, at some point in the future, Boston Review will put it online.
As well, a couple caveats:
First, Burt goes to some length to say that many of the poems of the Elliptical Poets are very good poems, and continue to be. As well, what he’s saying about the New Thing isn’t evaluative, but descriptive. He’s not putting these poems and poets forward as necessarily better poems. This is not a manifesto.
Second, and this is my own addition: a mode or a period in one thing historically, and quite a different thing aesthetically. What I mean is, though we often think of the Objectivists, say as a product of the 1930s, some of the best poems in that mode were written (I’m specifically thinking of Oppen here, but one could also argue the same for several others) in the 1960s. So to say that this is not the age of The New Narrative poets (which I believe was the 1980s?) or the Elliptical Poets (this last decade) or Talk Poems, etc., is not to say these poems aren’t relevant or productive. It’s just placing an X over the site of expansion.
I still stick with my own assertion that we’ve been in the age of prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narratives since the early 1970s, judging from the overwhelming number of these poems being written. This is the base of what Ron Silliman terms (insert all necessary warning signs and disclaimers) the School of Quietude. While these other movements (Elliptical / Third Way / Etc.) might be sites of expansion, or even ascendant period styles, they are not the most common type of poems being written. Has it always been so? That what one says about a period is only reflective of one (and not the most common) aspect of that period? The answer seems "yes" to me. This only leaves me to wonder.